When TimeLine Theatre asked David Cromer to direct Larry Kramer's powerful 1985 autobiographical drama The Normal Heart, the director and actor had a better offer: He wanted to play the central role of Ned Weeks, based on Kramer himself. TimeLine didn't hesitate in saying yes, so the Chicago-based Cromer, who won an Obie Award in 2009 for playing the role of the the Stage Manager in his production of Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre (which began at Steppenwolf Theatre) and directed The House of Blue Leaves on Broadway in 2011, took on the role. The company's cofounder, Nick Bowling, became the director. The result, if slightly imperfect, is deeply satisfying in many ways.
The play itself remains pertinent 27 years after it first saw the light of day, recounting Kramer's struggle against ignorance and indifference within the political and medical establishments, and his monumental battles within the heavily closeted gay community. Kramer, a novelist and Oscar-nominated screenwriter, began campaigning in 1981 to raise public awareness about the as-yet-unnamed AIDS epidemic and also cofounded the Gay Men's Health Crisis. Though Kramer was massively angry and thoroughly politicized when he wrote The Normal Heart, he was also far too clever to allow the play to be a mere screed. Instead, it's equal parts love story, political tract, and history, with each component integral to the telling of the others. It's a play about community even more than it's about AIDS.
Cromer's portrayal of Ned Weeks, the character which Kramer based on himself, is never unfocused or slack, but there are beats that could use more surface show and less neurotic withdrawal. It seems Cromer has taken his cue from the real-life Kramer's famously quiet and modest persona during one-on-one conversations (vs. his public-speaking persona).
Other performances are spot-on. Patrick Andrews, a member of the vaunted Steppenwolf Ensemble, plays Ned Weeks' lover, Felix Turner, with just the right blend of intelligence and puppy-dog charm. Jefferson Award winner Mary Beth Fisher is brightly effective as wheelchair-bound Dr. Emma Brookner, the voice of compassionate science with a touch of sarcasm.
Given the vivid emotions of Kramer's pointed, telling language, Bowling's direction is low-key, letting the devastating words and intense actions speak for themselves. This approach sometimes seems bland, resulting in actors who are restrained or at least relatively quiet. The show was most effective in Act 2, where Kramer's writing really pulls heartstrings and pushes politics. There is the closeted president of the Gay Men's Health Crisis board (Joel Gross), who recounts his lover's harrowing death and the doctors, nurses, morticians, and police who refused to touch the body. There is Dr. Brookner's impassioned harangue when a government health agency turns down her research request. Then, Ned Weeks simply but eloquently speaks of gay men who helped forge Western civilization, from Plato to Herman Melville to Dag Hammarskjöld. Finally, there is the inspiring climax, which I'd completely forgotten in the years since I last saw it.
This intimate production utilizes a shallow platform stage. Designer Brian Sidney Bembridge backs it with a wall of books, and wing to wing and floor to lights to represent Ned Weeks' apartment. In front of it, Bembridge places a wing-to-wing wall of opaque panels that slide like barn doors to reveal scenes behind them. It's a useful metaphor for the early AIDS era, with a wall separating viewers from what they need to know, what's coming next.